Monday, July 31, 2017

Seven Days in May (1964)

Director: John Frankenheimer                           Writer: Rod Serling
Film Score: Jerry Goldsmith                              Cinematography: Ellsworth Fredericks
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Fredric March and Ava Gardner

There’s an eerie sense of foreboding surrounding Seven Days in May, as President Kennedy himself was a strong believer in the plausibility of the original novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II. The president had received an advanced copy and felt it an important piece of work that needed to be read by the public. But beyond that, he even lobbied John Frankenhiemer--who had directed the equally prescient Manchurian Candidate--to make a film of the book. Unfortunately, Kennedy would not live to see the film as he was assassinated by forces within the government, not unlike those in the film. Knebel and Bailey based their rogue general on the real-life general Edwin Walker, whom Kennedy had to fire because he was making outrageous comments to his troops and staff to the effect that highly visible Democrats--including former President Truman--were Communists. Walker continued his rants after he was relieved of command, and even attempted to run for governor of Texas. The two authors also interviewed Air Force general Curtis LeMay, who was an advocate of first-strike nuclear response to Soviet aggression. The great Rod Serling was given the job of translating the novel to the screen and does a tremendous job of creating suspense when the president and his advisors think an attempted coup is impossible.

The film opens in front of the White House, protesters picketing outside the gates. Some people are unhappy with the president, Fredric March, their signs even say they want to impeach him, or replace him with military man Burt Lancaster. Another group supports his treaty with the Russians as a move toward peace. The protesters are dead silent, until one shouts and a brawl ensues. Except for the clothing it’s such a precise prediction of the battles that would take place on that very spot a few years later over the Vietnam War it’s spooky. March is assisted by his chief of staff Martin Balsam, and visited in the oval office by senatorial lush Edmond O’Brien. The whole issue is over nuclear weapons and March believes in disarmament above all, even his future in politics. When general Burt Lancaster is brought before a Senate committee, he has no issue with calling March weak for not listening to his concerns about the treaty. Senator Whit Bissell seems to agree. His doubts are based on a general distrustfulness of the Russians. Kirk Douglas, as a Marine colonel, works for Lancaster and they have an exercise planned for the weekend that they’re not going to tell the senators about. But when Douglas comes across a couple of things that don’t seem to be part of regular military operations, he gets suspicious.

At a party later Ava Gardner, who has been thrown over by Lancaster, makes a play for Douglas, but he takes a rain check. When Bissell makes a passing comment as he’s leaving that implies he knows about Sunday’s event, Douglas immediately goes out to see Lancaster. Sunday turns out to be a rehearsal for the complete evacuation of the government officials, but Lancaster won’t admit to Douglas that Bissell knows. Douglas, who has liberal leanings, doesn’t like what’s happening. Finally, he goes to March and tells him he believes there is going to be a military takeover on Sunday. John Frankenheimer was incredibly happy with the film, including the performances of his lead actors. Ironically, he had not wanted to work with Burt Lancaster because the two of them had a lot of conflict on their previous production, Birdman of Alcatraz. But Kirk Douglas assured the director that he would keep him in line. Ultimately, however, Frankenheimer was delighted with Lancaster’s performance and the two of them became good friends afterward while the director had a falling out with Douglas.

One of the great joys of the film is the choice of actors. Fredric March is magisterial, and it would be difficult to think of another actor at the time who could have matched the actor’s mix of honesty and folksiness while still commanding respect. Though Kirk Douglas apparently had to entice Lancaster by offering him the lead role of the general, Douglas’s part as the colonel is actually far more important in the film and he does an impressive job. Martin Balsam, George Macready, Ava Gardner and Edmond O’Brien--who was nominated for an Oscar--are all perfectly cast and deliver tremendous performances. The real surprise, however, is the delightful presence of two other stars, John Houseman and Whit Bissell. Though he had been a major actor on stage since the thirties, this is only Houseman’s second appearance on film. It’s a small role, but he is very effective. As for Bissell, after having sunk to low-budget performances in teen exploitation horror films for AIP in the late fifties, his appearance in a major motion picture here is wonderful. AIP was usually the place Hollywood careers went to die, but here he is the equal of the other stars of the period. The film score by Jerry Goldsmith is fairly forgettable, but then that’s probably appropriate. Despite the numerous location shots, it’s a very intimate film. Seven Days in May is a tremendous film in its own right, but also a frightening reminding of the kind of forces at work even today that can undermine our democratic system of government.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Bullitt (1968)

Director: Peter Yates                                         Writers: Alan Trustman & Harry Kleiner
Film Score: Lalo Schifrin                                   Cinematography: William A. Fraker
Starring: Steve McQueen, Jacqueline Bisset, Robert Vaughn and Simon Oakland

Some vital piece of the filmmaking art has been completely abandoned in the last forty years. It’s not obvious until you really take a look at films from the sixties and seventies and realize how much different they are and why. The thing that is missing from modern films is patience. Just one scene from Steve McQueen’s Bullitt will demonstrate. After McQueen’s witness has been killed in his hotel room, he orders the police on the scene to seal the room--to physically stand guard and not let anyone in. Then, it’s not until the next day, almost twenty-four hours later before he actually gets around to taking a look at the room. But that’s just the patience in the story. What is truly amazing is the scene itself, after he goes into the room. Director Peter Yates simply keeps his camera on McQueen’s face as he looks around. There are a few brief cutaways to the murder scene, but that’s hardly the point. The entire scene plays out on McQueen’s face, not the room itself. It’s difficult to imagine that we’ll see that kind of patience on film ever again. Even the chase scenes seem to unfold in a similar fashion, allowing the action itself to provide the excitement rather than the editing--and yet still winning an Academy Award for Frank Keller’s editing. For that reason alone, this would be a film worth watching. But with a terrific story and an impressive cast, there’s much more to recommend.

The film opens in Chicago, with Pat Renella making some kind of escape from an office building by using tear gas. Later, in San Francisco, he catches a cab driven by Robert Duvall, and holes up in a seedy hotel. The next morning Steve McQueen’s partner, Don Gordon, rousts him out of bed and the two detectives go to meet with district attorney Robert Vaughn. It turns out Renella is a mobster who has been skimming money and now wants to turn informant. Vaughn wants McQueen to protect him until the hearings begin on Monday. McQueen and Gordon work with another detective, Carl Reindel, and decide to switch off on eight-hour shifts, but before the first shift is over hit man Paul Genge bursts into the room, shooting Reindel in the leg and killing Renella. Georg Stanford Brown plays the surgeon who keeps Renella from dying, but only for a few hours. McQueen’s commanding officer, Simon Oakland, gives McQueen carte blanche to figure out who the hit men are. Meanwhile Vaughn blames the whole thing on McQueen, who can’t decide how complicit Vaughn is in what has happened. Genge, who is set on finishing the job, is nearly caught by McQueen in the hospital. Then later, when he decides to go after McQueen himself, the detective turns the tables on him in a car chase through the streets of San Francisco But the hit man turns out to be a dead end and McQueen must find another way to uncover the truth.

The story was based on the 1963 novel Mute Witness by the great Robert L. Fish, the author of Pursuit. Peter Yates had done primarily television work at that point in his career and worked closely with McQueen and his production company. Composer Lalo Schifrin’s distinctive jazz influenced score was not the first of its kind, having done something similar on The Liquidator three years earlier. He had also written the music for McQueen’s film The Cincinnati Kid the same year. McQueen’s performance is quite unique, in that he tends to have very little dialogue, keeping his thoughts to himself and letting his actions speak for him. Simon Oakland is also enjoyably restrained, years before he would become a caricature in Kolchak: The Night Stalker. A young Jacqueline Bisset is McQueen’s love interest, but it’s a small part and not very crucial to the plot. Of course the iconic scene in the film is the ten-minute car chase. McQueen is being tailed, which he realizes before it even starts, and he loses the tail quickly, then suddenly appears in the rearview mirror behind the hit men. It’s a nice moment. Schifrin’s music gradually builds along with the scene and overall it exudes a genuine sense of realism. But that was the intent with the entire film, real locations throughout rather than any studio work. The prominence of the city also led to a string of crime dramas set there, the most popular being the Dirty Harry series with Clint Eastwood. Ultimately Bullitt is an impressive piece of work for McQueen and everyone involved, and arguably the seminal work in pre-seventies police films.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Truck Turner (1974)

Director: Jonathan Kaplan                                Writers: Oscar Williams & Michael Allin
Film Score: Isaac Hayes                                   Cinematography: Charles F. Wheeler
Starring: Isaac Hayes, Yaphet Kotto, Alan Weeks and Nichelle Nichols

After the massive success of his soundtrack to the film Shaft, Isaac Hayes was able to position himself as a movie star for a couple of years during the tail end of the Blaxploitation craze. But while certain among those films continue to be relevant as cinema today, Truck Turner isn’t one of them. This was the second of two films Hayes starred in, after appearing in Tough Guys the year before, and was intended to be the bottom half of a double-bill with Foxy Brown. And while the film is unable to rise above an execrable screenplay and some terrible acting, Hayes himself, along with the great Yaphet Kotto, manage to hold their own. The odd nature of the story—Hayes as a bounty hunter who never gets hassled by the police, even after killing half a dozen people—only makes sense in retrospect. The initial plan for the film was to have an aging star like Lee Marvin or Robert Mitchum play the lead, but the low-budget nature of what American International Pictures could produce kept even those stars away, so studio executive Larry Gordon made the decision to hire a black principal cast and have the screenplay rewritten accordingly.

The film opens on the streets of L.A., with Hayes’ impressive opening theme. It’s not the equal of Shaft, but it definitely has the composer’s often imitated and never equaled sound. Once inside Hayes’ apartment the phone begins to ring, and a slow, loving pan across the place reveals something on the order of an anti-Shaft, in the way that there are dirty dishes, empty food containers, and a general mess. His partner, Alan Weeks, is calling to say they have a job picking up bail jumper Don Megowan. After a run in with the guards on the Army base they finally convince officious major James Millhollan to release Megowan and Hayes goes mano a mano with him in a field after being taunted one too many times. After taking the prisoner to jail, the two men collect their pay from bail bondsman Sam Laws. Later, defense lawyer Dick Miller needs the two to pick up a dangerous pimp, Paul Harris, and so the first place Hayes and Weeks go is the beauty salon. According to Hayes, “If you want to find a rooster you got to check out the hens.” There he finds Harris’s woman Nichelle Nichols who, in spite of her fury, exposes Harris, all of which leads to a car chase and a shoot out. When Harris is killed, Nichols gathers all of the major criminals in town, including Harris’s enemy, Yaphet Kotto, and puts a contract out on Hayes. The last third of the film is Hayes having to kill or be killed as they all go after the money.

In terms of the acting Weeks is, well, week. He’s good looking on camera but tends to overact. The same goes for Nichols. But for all of them they are saddled with a profanity and n-word laden script that contains nothing close to subtlety. Hayes’ relationship in the film is with Annazette Chase, which could have been interesting but isn’t given enough time to go anywhere. Scatman Crothers makes an appearance as a retired pimp, Stan Shaw as a hood, and Eddie Smith as a dope dealer, but to little effect. If there is one element of the film that stands out, however, it’s Kotto’s death scene. It may be one of the best in all of cinema. The realism is so startling I’m tempted to say the film is worth getting just for this, but the presence of Kotto in the second half of the film as well as Hayes and his score are two more reasons. At the end of the scene comes the startling use of a body camera pointed up at Kotto’s face as he stumbles toward his car which, while not unique, is used so infrequently in twentieth century film that it draws attention to itself in a good way. Had Hayes’ score for Shaft not been such a monster hit, the Truck Turner score might have done incredibly well, but by then Stax was on its last legs and the score wasn’t quite as memorable. Ultimately, Truck Turner is not a good film. By this time Blaxploitation was on the way out and it shows. Bad acting and a horrible screenplay doomed it to be little more than a low-budged embarrassment. Watch it for Kotto and Hayes’s score, but don’t expect more.